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As the title of this post indicates, the winter 2012 issue of American Athenaeum is now available for purchase in both ebook and print form here.

The cover features a starkly beautiful image by award-winning photographer Harun Mehmedinovic and features new poetry, stories, essays and articles by Steven Cramer, William Lychack, Pat Lowery Collins, Jacqueline West and others, alongside well-loved work by revered writers from the past. Our contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but all share a common desire to understand — themselves, other people, their own and other societies as well as the sometimes frightening, mystifying twists of fate.

I’ve written the editorial for the issue. It represents my continuing efforts to be understanding, to examine what understanding requires of us and what it offers us in return. As the need for understanding and compassion has only grown in our increasingly fragmented, embattled world, we at American Athenaeum are proud and honored to present this issue. We hope it will give you the hope and inspiration to keep pushing toward the better future we all need and deserve.

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There are essentially two literary genres: prose and poetry. There is also prose-poetry, which is a shifting, vaguely defined form situated somewhere between the two, but many people are uncomfortable with it and relegate it to one or the other of the previously mentioned because it helps them sleep better at night.

Some people like only poetry; some people only love prose. And then there are people who love both poetry and prose. My guess is that most people love both (at least a little), or would love both if they gave themselves the chance, but many are so enamored with one that they don’t realize their attraction to the other. Either that, or they’re afraid of what their friends would think if they went for that other genre once in a while.

If it is possible to turn a prose-lover into a poetry-lover, or vice versa, that person was likely already prone to loving the genre in the first place. And just because someone who likes both genres goes on a poetry binge does not mean that s/he no longer enjoys prose. Likewise, if someone identifies mainly as a poetry lover but once in a while dips into a bit of fiction, it does not mean that they are in denial or in the act of betraying their poetry-loving cause. It just means that that’s what they’re into reading right now, and they may eventually go back to the other genre or (most often) back and forth between the two.

There are also those who enjoy a little poetry along with their prose. For these, each form enriches the reader’s experience of the other. There is nothing wrong with this.

The literary world is huge and ripe with all shades and shapes of richly rewarding experiences. There is bad poetry; there is bad prose; there is bad prose-poetry (some would say that all prose-poetry is bad, but I digress). There is also much that is good in each genre, and to deny that it is possible for someone to appreciate these simultaneously is to be myopic and petty. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what anyone reads, as long as it has value for them in their lives. One person reading poetry does not denigrate the experience of the prose reader beside him or her. To each his/her own.

Blessed are the free spirits willing to embrace all genres, for they will be bestowed with understanding.

-Fin-

“WU LYF” is an acronym for World Unite/Lucifer Youth Federation — “Lucifer” in this case adhering to the title’s original meaning, “bringer of light” (initially used to refer to the morning star), with a tongue-in-cheek, rebellious nod to its modern connotations. They’re from Manchester, England, and say they play “heavy pop.”

In a world that’s often more politicized and “moral” than compassionate and free, this is an important, necessary song. It calls us back to our roots as animals, as creatures existing without all the nonsense of ideologies and campaigns and the pointless back-biting that’s caused by those things. It’s about being connected and realizing that connection, not to the suits we wear (what religion we follow, how much money we have, what we do for a living, which political party we support, how we look, who we love, and so on), but to each other just because we are. It’s about getting back to that primordial sensitivity we seem to have forgotten — a sensitivity both to the people around us and to ourselves, our own innocent impulses. The song (the entire album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain, in fact) is one of those rare gestures that gives us permission to really be ourselves, to fully feel out our humanity without shame. And that’s important, at least to me.

 

This ship’s set sail,
set sail on you and me.
This ship’s set sail;
I just wanted to be free.

So maybe we will fail,
fail to not see;
maybe we will fail,
but at least we will be free.

You stand so holy;
Nah, don’t sit down.
Join the feet all marching
across the ground.

This place so lonely,
but, nah, don’t settle down;
just hear the beat drown over
all this lonesome sound.

It’s a sad song that makes a man put
money before life,
a sad song that puts a man up for sale,
a sad song that make a man put
money before life.
How many asses are you gonna have to sell?

We were born as animals.
We were born as animals and we bros,
but you put suits on animals;
you try to put suits on animals, but we bros.

We bros, you lost man.
We bros so long.
Put away your guns, man,
and sing this song.

And I said the mountain won’t go falling
if your still willing to climb,
but when the mountain goes falling,
true riches you will find.

Nah, we were born as animals,
born as animals and we bros,
but you put suits on animals;
you try to put suits on animals, but we bros.

We bros, you lost man.
We bros so long.
Put away your guns, man,
and sing this song.
_________________________

For more from WU LYF, check out their site here. I also recommend this really great article from Spinner.

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

Kwan Yin, Chan Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

“…I have three treasures that I cherish and hold fast.
The first is compassion,
the second is simplicity,
the third is daring not to be first
among all things under heaven.

Because of compassion I am able to be courageous.
Because of simplicity I am able to be generous.
Because of daring not to be first
I am able to lead…”

-From the Tao Te Ching, Ch. 67

Compassion seems like such a little thing, so minor that we hardly think about it, even when we’re being compassionate. But it is important, perhaps the most important quality we can have as human beings, subtle and common as it seems. Maybe I have a Pollyanna complex, but I think that if you live compassionately — consistently and indiscriminately — you can change the world around you. Which is why I’m glad that Karen Armstrong and the Fetzer Institute have organized the rapidly growing movement Charter for Compassion, which promotes the spread of compassion, regardless of one’s cultural and religious values or social and economic status. The Charter’s call to action states:

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.

People need compassion; we crave it. I’m convinced that the world’s bitterness, pessimism, and violence come not only from selfishness, but from feeling that everyone else is selfish as well, that they’re alone or nearly alone in a threatening world. How can you change their minds? By showing them consistently that that’s not the way the world has to be. It’s true that some people won’t latch on; they won’t change and they might even try to take advantage of people who are kind to them. Still, there are others who are open to being shown that, as the Charter states, “Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.” The presence of those in our world who are cynical and immovable, for whatever reason (and there are always reasons), doesn’t justify giving up on the whole of humanity. Live and let live, yes, but do so compassionately.

“To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of…even those regarded as enemies” is the kernel of the movement, I think. As Christ said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? … And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32-33). The mark of a truly compassionate person is one who loves those who seem difficult to love and does good to those who may not reciprocate. It’s hard to do that, I know; I struggle with it every day. But I’m making a concentrated, daily effort to recognize those “enemies” of mine and try to understand them, to perceive the vulnerabilities that have caused them to become difficult for me to love, and if that’s not possible for whatever reason, to at least acknowledge that they have those vulnerabilities.

Who are your enemies? For a moment, forget what they stand for or what they’ve done to you, and try to discover their humanity — their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, their need for love and understanding. Learning to forgive and love one’s enemies not only allows you to interact with them in a positive way; it improves your health and your relationships with those you love because, in refusing to expend so much energy on animosity, you become a happier, more serene person.

I highly recommend checking out The Charter for Compassion (linked above) and the community that’s grown from it. I’m not really the heartwarming, touchy-feely type, but I do think this is important. It’s the only way for us to grow as human beings.

While visiting my family in Virginia, my dad handed me a book of selected poetry by Walt Whitman, one of those Dover thrift editions I love (I have about ten now). I hadn’t read much of Whitman before; I’d never been in a state of mind to really appreciate his work when I’d come across it in the past. But I love poetry and, because it was slim, I put it in my purse and read it on the plane trip back home. It couldn’t have come at a better time. For a while now, I’ve been disappointed by people as a species, including myself — the pain we cause, the hatred and biases we feel, the common dignity we deny ourselves and each other. The righteousness we’re all sure we possess, without considering that others in opposition to us believe they possess it, too. And from that sense of righteousness, a smugness, a denial of others’ humanity. It’s so easy to lump everyone into categories according to their beliefs and ways of life, to deny them as one of our own. What we forget is that they, too, are vulnerable, sensitive, fragile — even the most bigoted among us. Everyone has their moments of doubt and weakness. Everyone is deserving of compassion. And Whitman’s poetry teaches me to remember daily, in every interaction and conflict I face, to accept all people as my own — as members of my family — and to see the entire world as my home. His work also teaches me to accept, forgive, and love myself, which is the hardest thing for me to do.

That the poetry came now — out of nowhere, falling right into my lap when I needed it most — seems an act of fate. I’m not sure what I believe about fate (if I believe in it at all), but some things are just so opportune that I wonder. Reading this right now, you may not appreciate Whitman’s work. You may never see much in it at all. That’s okay. Literature hits people when they need it and not everyone needs the same things, certainly not at the same time. But for those of you who, like me, do need it, I’ll post some sections here.

_______________________________________

From “I Sing the Body Electric”
7.
A man’s body at auction,
(For before the war I often go to the slave-mart and watch the sale,)
I help the auctioneer, the sloven does not half know his business.

Gentlemen look on this wonder,
Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,
For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,
For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d.

In this head the all-baffling brain,
In it and below it the makings of heroes.

Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.

Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,
(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?
(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)

From “Salut Au Monde!”
11.

All you continentals of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent of place!
All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!
And you of centuries hence when you listen to me!
And you of each and everywhere whom I specify not, but include just the same!
Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!
Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her right upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.

13.
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them…

Salut au monde!
What cities the light or warmth penetrates I penetrate those cities myself,
All islands to which birds wing their way I wing my way myself.

Toward you all, in America’s name,
I raise high the perpendicular hand, I make the signal,
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men.

From “Song of the Open Road”
5.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

From 6.
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

From “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
5.
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not–distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it.
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew I was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

6.

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.